Education in general, and post-secondary education in particular, is a predictor of gainful employment in meaningful occupations, opening opportunities for career development, hence for quality of life (Duta, Scguri-Geist, & Kundu, 2009; Getzel, Stodden, & Brief, 2001). This finding is even more significant for people with physical and sensory disabilities, whose range of employment is limited to jobs that require fewer physical abilities and skills (Kendall & Terry, 1996; McGeary, Mayer, Gatchel, Anagnostis & Proctor, 2003). Accessibility to education is therefore especially important for people with disabilities (Drake, Gray, Yoder, Pramuka & Llewellyn, 2000; Dorwick, Anderson, Heyer & Acosta, 2005; Inbar, 2003 ; Inbar, 1991; Getzel et al., 2001; Rimmerman & Araten-Bergman, 2005) .

Despite the revolution in social and legislative policies on provision of equal opportunities for education and employment for people with disabilities, there is still a long way to go (American with Disabilities Act, 1990; Canadian Human Rights Act, 1985; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1997; Quinn & Waddington, 2009; United Nation Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006). It is estimated that only 8-14% of all students in post secondary education institutes in the US and Great Britain are students with disabilities, while in these countries over 18% of working-age people are disabled . (Americans with Disabilities: 2002 report at http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/aging_population/006809.html). Although there are as yet no detailed statistics in Israel, a public committee examined the implementation of the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Act (2005), and found that higher education still does not meet the requirements on inclusion of people with disabilities into the community (Admon, 2007; Laron report, 2005). It concluded that the higher the level of education of people with disabilities, the better the chances for them to integrate into society in general, and into employment in particular, so that they might sustain themselves financially with dignity. Among its recommendations, the committee called for action to expand accessibility to institutions of higher education on the policy level and in support programs for students (Laron report, 2005). The National Insurance Institute accordingly allocated resources to make academic institutions accessible to people with disabilities (Ramot & Feldman, 2003); funds were provided for making physical adjustments in buildings and adding computers, assistive technology, and other adapted learning equipment, in addition to scholarships to students (Inbar, 2003). It is assumed that these actions resulted in an increasing number of students with disabilities entering higher education in Israel.

Expectations of higher enrollment of students with disabilities have prompted academic institutes to introduce innovative programs to meet these students' needs. Special programs have been opened for students with visual impairments, students with learning disabilities, and students with psychiatric disabilities (Oved, 2007; Sasson, Greenshphon, Lachman & Bonny, 2003; Stodden, Roberts, Picklesimer, Jackson & Chang, 2006). However, research initiated for legislation proposals in 2008 found a lack of consistency in policy, of evaluation criteria, of entrance requirements, and of support and supportive programs developed by the different institutions (Yorgan, 2006).

The opportunity these changes presented for the inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education institutions, and the resources dedicated to that purpose, call for an in-depth examination of the results: how do these students participate in academic and student life in general? The aim of the present study is to expand knowledge on the academic performance and experiences of students with various disabilities in higher education.

Academic performance and experiences of students

The two most traditional objective measures of academic performance of students are Grade Point Average (GPA) (McKenzie & Schweitzer, 2001) and the Success Index, which is the rate of courses the student has completed without failure (Foreman, Dempsey, Robinson & Manning, 2001). In recent years, subjective measures have been added, reflecting students' self-evaluation in self-report questionnaires. These measures refer to personal factors, such as self-perception of success and satisfaction (Pace & Kuh, 1998; McKenzie & Schweitzer, 2001).

Only in the last decade has students' performance begun to be examined from a perspective of experience in activities in the broader context of students' roles (Pace & Kuh, 1998). This change is embedded in an extensive definition of participation as an integrated term of involvement in activities, evident in the interaction process between an individual and her/his environment (Eriksson & Granlund, 2004). The term participation has several dimensions: taking part, inclusion, involvement in various life areas, and access to the necessary resources (Moller & Danermark, 2007). This conceptualization means that students' experiences include participation and learning in all aspects of academic institutional life, in and outside the classroom. In addition, according to Pace & Kuh (1998), students should be encouraged to expand and exercise the knowledge gained in formal learning to interact with students, faculty members, and other people outside the campus. Thus, formal and non-formal learning experiences, on- and off-campus interactions, are part of students' roles. The present study chose to include, in addition to the usual academic performance measures, a broad perception of students' participation in diverse, multi-dimensional experiences related to their roles, and to evaluate their perceptions of their gains and satisfaction with their studies.

Challenges to inclusion of students with disabilities in academic studies

Despite changes in many Western countries' legislation and the development of programs for students with disabilities, in recognition of the importance of higher education for individuals, families, and society at large, low enrolment and high first-year dropout have been found (Dutta et al., 2009; Mpofu & Wilson, 2004). Low enrolment and high dropout can be understood as the result of inadequate accessibility of higher education institutions, lack of support, adverse social attitudes and social isolation, as well as low financial capacity (Foreman et al., 2001; Jung, 2003; Johnson, 2006; McKenzie & Schweitzer, 2001; Mpofu & Wilson, 2004).

Among the supporting factors, studies have shown the importance of faculty's attitudes toward students with disabilities, their awareness of these students' needs, and their knowledge of the reasonable accommodations available. These attitudes influence success or failure of students with disabilities, and affect inclusion in higher education (Rao, 2004). Negative attitudes of faculty and administrative staff may prevent students, especially students with invisible disabilities, from disclosing their disabilities and from requesting accommodations they are entitled to(Jung, 2003; Johnson, 2006). In a survey, 50% of students with disabilities indicated that faculty members understood their needs, but only 25% of faculty members were willing to change the material covered in their courses to suit these students' learning needs. Most (82%) of the students indicated that faculty members needed to learn more about disabilities (Barazandeh, 2005; Kraska, 2003).

In regard to academic achievements, studies have shown conflicting results. Some found the average grades among students with disabilities significantly lower, the percentage of course drop-out and failures in courses higher, and the study period (number of semesters) longer, than those of students without disability (Foreman, Dempsey, Robinson & Manning, 2001). Students with disabilities reported a subjective feeling that they were not succeeding like other students, as well as difficulty in coping with the required investment during the study period (Foreman et al., 2001; McKenzie & Schweitzer, 2001), and a sense of social isolation (Shevlin, Kenny & McNeela, 2004). Other studies, however, found no difference between students with and without disabilities in average grades (Horn & Berktold, 1999). Several studies found average grades of the former higher than those of the latter (Willett, 2002; Jorgensen et al., 2005).

The importance of higher education in providing students with disabilities decent employment opportunities and social status is well documented. At a time of legislative endorsement of access to higher education, and of changes in attitudes resulting from the struggle for equal rights for people with disabilities, it is crucial to broaden knowledge and understanding of the broad perspective of achievements and experiences of this group of students in higher education, and to compare them with those of students without disabilities. The aim of this study is precisely that, to examine the broad perspective of achievements and experiences of students with disabilities in higher education and to compare it to those of students without disabilities.

The major outcome measures chosen for comparison were academic performance, participation in student experiences, self-evaluation of personal gains and achievements, and students' satisfaction with their experiences throughout their studies. Respondents' personal characteristics, as well as their disability characteristics, were examined to evaluate their effect on the outcome measures. The research questions compared students with and without disabilities, and students with various disabilities (physical, sensory, and psychiatric) among themselves, on the outcome measures.

Method

The present study is part of a larger research project evaluating accessibility of higher education institutions in Israel. The project was in two parts: a survey of services and accommodations for students with disabilities in the various institutions, and a study on students' academic performance and their participation in student experiences. Here we report the results of the latter.

In the spirit of Disability Studies (Barnes, 2004), the research steering committee included people with and without disabilities and students' representatives. Students with disabilities played some part in the study's design, recruitment, and data collection. The term "students with disabilities" refers to students who reported themselves as people with physical, sensory or mental disability.

Research population

A total of 326 students attending higher education institutes in Israel (six universities and 22 colleges), who had studied at least one year in a higher education institution, participated and signed a consent form. They formed two groups: (a) a research group of 170 students with physical, sensory or psychiatric disabilities, who were recruited in response to numerous advertisements and calls for participation disseminated on Internet websites, in offices of the Dean of Students, and in Student organizations; (b) a control group of 156 students without disabilities, who were matched as closely as possible, by education, age, and institution, to the research group; these students were recruited in a snowball sampling method.

Table 1 shows a resemblance between the characteristics of the two groups of students, with and without disabilities. No significant difference is seen in students' average age, family profile, and ethnicity. However, the group of students with disabilities had a higher proportion of males and immigrants than the group of students without disabilities, and a much smaller proportion of students who worked during their studies (40% as compared to 74%).

Table 1: Description of subjects by demographic variables
Variable Category Students without Disabilities (N = 156) Students with Disabilities (N = 170) Difference
Number of Subjects Percentage Number of Subjects Percentage χ2
Gender Male 92 54.1 30 19.2 42.28***
Female 78 45.9 126 80.8  
Place of Birth Israel 143 84.1 142 91 8.67**
Other 25 15.9 14 8.5  
Marital Status Single/ divorced/ widowed 140 87.6 114 78.4 NS
Married 24 14.1 31 19.5  
In relationship 7 4.1 11 7.5  
Ethnicity Jewish 140 84.4 134 85.9 NS
Muslim 24 14.1 17 10.9  
Christian 4 2.4 3 1.9  
Other 2 1.2 2 1.2  
Education of parents Higher education 56 32.9 56 35.9 NS
No higher education 58 34.1 59 37.8  
Mother's higher education 28 16.5 24 15.4  
Father's higher education 24 14.1 17 10.9  
Unknown 4 2.4 0 0  
Employment Employed 65 40 115 74.2 38.78***

*P<0.05

There were some differences in entry requirements for students with disabilities and those without disabilities. More students with disabilities were admitted to academic institutions without full matriculation certificates and with lower grades. A t-test for two independent samples revealed a significant difference (t = 1.66; p = .000). No significant difference was found in the psychometric exam grade, with an average of 628.13 (SD = 83.4) for students without disabilities and of 591.86 (SD = 95.43) for those with disabilities (This last finding should be taken cautiously due to many missing data.). In addition, more students with disabilities took transitional preparatory programs and transferred from another academic institution to the present one than did those without disabilities.

Students in the group with disabilities had sensory disabilities (sight and hearing) (n=65), neuromuscular diseases (CP, neuromuscular impairments, spinal cord, muscle-skeletal) (n=61), psychiatric disabilities (n=39), and multiple disabilities (n=5).

Research tools

Bio-demographic student background questionnaire

The questionnaire was designed for the current study based on two resources: A study funded by the Israeli National Insurance Institute among students with vision disabilities (Ramot & Feldman, 2003), and the College Student Experiences Questionnaire described below (Pace & Kuh, 1998). This questionnaire consisted of three types of background characteristics: demographic (gender, age, family status, and occupation); disability (diagnosis and onset of disability); and education (matriculation grade average, psychometric grade, GPA, major subject, number of courses and semesters). The third part was used in the current study to identify two subjective academic performance measures: grade point average (GPA) and course density (average number of courses per semester).

College Student Experiences Questionnaire (CSEQ), fourth edition (Pace & Kuh, 1998).

This is a standard comprehensive questionnaire for collecting information on self-report experiences of undergraduate students at higher education institutions. The fourth edition of the questionnaire was used in the present study, after translation into Hebrew by the accepted back-translation procedure. It has 110 items pertaining to students' experiences in different activities on campus, and 20 items on students' estimated gains in specific areas. Identifying a missing section for the purpose of the present research, the researchers added 11 items on students' satisfaction. The questionnaire's parts used in the present research are:

  • The student's participation in experiences.
    This was measured by 103 questions divided into 13 subscales of activities. Students were asked to evaluate the frequency of participation in them during their last academic year. Each question was evaluated on a 1 — 4 Likert scale: 1 — never; 2 — occasionally; 3 — often; 4 — very often. The experiences and interactions were: using library (8 items), using computers and information technology (9), course learning (11), writing experiences (7), experiences with faculty (9), art, music, and theatre (3) campus facilities (7), clubs and organizations (5), personal experiences (8), student acquaintances (10), quantitative and scientific experiences (10), topic of conversation (10), information in conversation (6). Average scores for each of the 13 subscales were calculated, as was the total average score of the degree of student's participation in all 103 activities.
  • Estimate of gains and achievements in studies scale
    . This measured students' perception of gains in 20 areas rated on a 1 — 4 Likert scale: 1 — very little, 2 — some, 3 — quite a bit, 4 — very much. The score was the mean of the 20 items.
  • Satisfaction scale.
    This measured students' satisfaction with their participation in each of 11 subscales presenting areas of students' experiences. This part was rated on a 1 — 4 Likert scale as follows: 1 — not satisfied at all, 2 — somewhat satisfied, 3 — quite satisfied, 4 — very satisfied. The score was the mean of these 11 items.

The CSEQ questions proved clear, well-defined, and of high content validity. Good correlation was found between the students' GPA and their personal evaluation of the extent of their activities (Kuh, Gonyea, Kish, Muthiah & Thomas, 2003). The questionnaire gave a good indication of students' campus involvement (Brenner, Metz & Brenner, 2009). In the present study, internal reliability (Cronbach's alpha) for the 13 subscales of students' experiences was α =.61 - .87; estimate of gain scale α=.90; satisfaction scale α= .90.

Research procedure

The research was approved by the ethics committee of the University of Haifa. With the assistance of the steering committee, every higher education institution was formally requested to advertise a call for students with disabilities to participate in the study. All students who expressed willingness to do so were contacted to arrange an appointment in a quiet place on campus or in the student's home, according to her/his preference. After the purpose and procedure of the study were explained, students signed a consent form to participate in the study and answered the study questionnaires, taking approximately forty minutes. Questionnaires were collected from 2006 to 2008. At that time, too, students without disabilities who matched the students with disabilities were sought and requested to take part in the study. Upon their agreement, they signed a consent form and then answered a data questionnaire on campus.

Data analysis

The statistical analyses were conducted using SPSS version 16.

Descriptive statistics, including means, standard deviations, frequencies, and percentages, were calculated for the whole research population, and for each group of students' personal and academic characteristics. Chi Square analysis and t-tests were conducted to compare personal and academic characteristics of students with and without disabilities.

To answer the study questions the following procedures were used: Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) and Chi Square test served to measure differences in academic achievements (GPA and course density) and in time invested in studies (time after classes and meeting deadlines), between students with and without disabilities. Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA) measured differences between students with and without disabilities in participation in all student experiences and in their satisfaction with their studies. MANOVA also measured differences between students with various categories of disabilities in participation in all student experiences and their satisfaction with their studies, followed by Scheffe tests to identity the source of differences. MANOVA likewise measured differences between students who used and did not use computers in student experiences.

Level of significance was set at p= 0.05 for all analyses.

Results

Academic characteristics:

Entry requirements for students with disabilities are somewhat different from those for students without disabilities. More students with disabilities were admitted to academic institutions without full matriculation certificates and with lower grades. A t-test for two independent samples revealed a significant difference (t = 1.66; p = .000). No significant difference was found in the psychometric exam grade, with an average of 628.13 (SD = 83.4) for students without disabilities and of 591.86 (SD = 95.43) for those with disabilities. However, this finding should be taken cautiously due to many missing data. More students with disabilities took transitional preparatory programs and transferred from another academic institution to the present one than did those without disabilities.

Research questions:

Some comparisons were made to examine the research questions for differences in outcome measures of students' academic performance and participation: (a) between students with and without disabilities; (b) among students according to type of disability; (c) between students with disabilities who used the computer often and those who used it rarely or not at all.

a. Differences between students with and without disabilities
Academic performance:

Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) revealed a significant difference between the two groups in the total grade average (F(1) = 4.257, p = .04. Eta square = .013). The students were asked to note their grade average on a 1 — 5 scale in five groups of grades (1 = 90-100; 2 = 80-90; 3 = 70-80; 4 = 60-70; 5 = 50-60). The GPA of students with disabilities was lower (2.11) than that of students without disabilities (1.93). That is, the GPA of students with disabilities was close to 80, while the grade average of students without disabilities was close to 90. An ANOVA also showed a significant difference in the average of students' course density per semester (F = 24.714, p = .000). Students without disabilities attended an average of 6.67 courses, while students with disabilities attended an average of 4.40 courses.

Chi square analysis revealed that students with disabilities invested more time in their studies and had difficulty adjusting to the required timetable. They studied 11 weekly hours more outside class than did students in the control group [χ2 = 38.47; df = 6; p < 0.001]. They also submitted their assignments and papers later than those without disabilities, some of them regularly [χ2 = 39.94; df = 3; p < 0.001].

Student experiences:

Differences in participation in student experiences were found by a Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA) (F(1) = 4.462a, p = .000, Eta square = 0.40). The significant differences were as follows: students with disabilities used computers less for their work, participated less in activities during courses, had less experience in art, music, and theatre activities, and were more satisfied with their studies, than students without disabilities (Table 2). In addition, students with disabilities had fewer experiences in on-campus facilities than students without disabilities, a difference that tended to significance.

Table 2: Differences in participation between students with and without disabilities
Experiences on a 1-4 scale Statistical value Students with disabilities (N=164) Students without disabilities (N=147) F values
1. Library Mean 1.26 1.17 NS
SD 0.65 0.57  
2. Computer and information technology Mean 1.45 1.61 4.17**
SD 0.67 0.67  
3. Course learning Mean 1.45 1.57 4.14**
SD 0.52 0.5  
4. Writing experiences Mean 1.16 1.15 NS
SD 0.58 0.57  
5. Experiences with faculty Mean 0.72 0.82 NS
SD 0.59 0.58  
6. Art, music and theatre Mean 0.66 0.9 11.10***
SD 0.59 0.68  
7. Campus facilities Mean 0.72 0.82 P= .59
SD 0.4 0.49  
8. Clubs and organizations Mean 0.36 0.43 NS
SD 0.53 60  
9. Personal experiences Mean 1.38 1.28 NS
SD 0.61 52  
10. Student acquaintances Mean 1.41 1.49 NS
SD 0.66 0.61  
11. Science and research Mean 0.68 0.77 NS
  0.54 0.59  
12. Topic of conversation SD 1.37 1.35 NS
Mean 0.56 0.54  
13. Information in conversation Mean 1.38 1.35 NS
SD 0.57 0.51  
Overall participation score Mean 1.11 1.11 NS
SD 0.37 0.34  
Estimation of gains Mean 1.51 1.54 NS
SD 0.55 0.58  
Satisfaction Mean 2.83 2.65 11.52***
SD 0.46 0.48  

Note: *p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001

b. Differences among students with various disabilities

A MANOVA revealed differences in students' experiences in various activities among the three groups of students with disabilities: physical (n=59), sensory (n=63), and psychiatric (n=30) (F(3) = 3.015, p < .001, Eta square = .145) (Table 3). The differences were in the experience subscales of library use, computer and information technology use, course learning, participation in music, art, and theatre events, joining clubs and organizations, and making student acquaintances; in estimation of gains; and in satisfaction with studies. Looking at the Scheffe test analysis, it is interesting to see that students with psychiatric disability reported fewer experiences in the three activities related to social inclusion, namely art and theatre events, clubs and organizations, and student acquaintances. Also, their estimation of gains from their studies was lower than those of the two other groups. On the other hand, they participated in library activities more than students with physical and sensory disabilities. Students with physical disabilities were more satisfied with their studies than were the other two groups of students with disabilities, and students with sensory disabilities had fewer experiences in course learning.

Table 3: Multi-variable variance analysis to compare students with various types of disabilities for differences in participation
Variable on a 1-4 scale Statistical value Students with physical disability Students with sensory disability Students with psychiatric disability F values
1. Library use Mean 1.16 1.29 1.44 2.94*
SD 0.66 0.65 0.62  
2. Computer and information technology use Mean 1.5 1.52 1.35 NS
SD 0.73 0.63 0.6  
3. Course learning Mean 1.6 1.35 1.43 3.39*
SD 0.6 0.51 0.4  
4. Writing experiences Mean 1.2 1.13 1.16 NS
SD 0.57 0.61 0.55  
5. Experiences with faculty Mean 0.85 0.85 0.71 NS
SD 0.6 0.6 0.6  
6. Cultural activities Mean 0.72 0.67 0.6 3.85*
SD 0.64 0.52 0.6  
7. Use of campus facilities Mean 0.7 0.8 0.73 NS
SD 0.41 0.43 0.33  
8. Participation in clubs and organizations Mean 0.34 0.46 0.14 3.55*
SD 0.56 0.54 0.3  
9. Personal experiences Mean 1.4 1.4 1.4 NS
SD 0.7 0.56 0.56  
10. Student acquaintances Mean 1.41 1.58 1.15 4.11**
SD 0.63 0.64 0.63  
11. Science and research experiences Mean 0.67 0.68 0.68 NS
SD 0.59 0.44 0.63  
12. Topic of conversation Mean 1.35 1.42 1.20 NS
SD 0.60 0.49 0.56
13. Information in conversation Mean 1.36 1.35 1.45 NS
SD .59 0.49 0.62
Overall participation score Mean 1.12 1.14 1.05 NS
SD 0.41 0.32 0.33  
Estimation of gains Mean 1.53 1.63 1.31 2.63**
SD 0.56 0.52 0.52
Satisfaction Mean 2.92 2.76 2.78 5.45**
SD 0.47 0.44 0.5

Note: *p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001

c. Differences between students with disabilities who use and do not use computers in student experiences

Almost all students reported owning a computer, those without disabilities (97.4%) and those with disabilities (95.9%). However, there was a significant difference between the two groups in their use of computers and information technology, as reflected in the CSEQ. Students with disabilities had fewer experiences in the use of computer and information technology (mean 1.45) than students without disabilities (means 1.61), with equal standard deviation distribution of 67. Based on the authors' expertise in adaptation of assistive technology and computers, and on the assumption of its critical role in higher education, we examined its actual role, adding a further statistical analysis. Two groups of students with disabilities were compared: those with disabilities who used computers often or very often ("computer users") and those who used computers occasionally or never ("computer non-users").

A MANOVA revealed significant differences between users and non-users of computers (F(1) = 2.732a, p = .001, Eta square = .217). The source of differences between the two groups was present in all areas of the student experiences. Computer users had more experiences on all subscales of student experiences and activities, estimated their gains higher, and were more satisfied with their studies than computers non-users.

Discussion

Studies in various countries, including Israel, show that years of education is one of the important predictors of inclusion of people with disabilities into the work cycle, promoting employment opportunities and improving quality of life (Inbar, 2003; Drake et al., 2000; Dowrick et al., 2005; Getzel et al., 2001; Kendall & Terry, 1996; McGeary et al., 2003; Rimmerman & Araten-Bergman, 2005). A public committee in Israel that examined the implementation of the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Act (Laron report, 2005) emphasized the crucial role of higher education in the inclusion of people with disabilities into society and in employment. At the same time, Israel's National Insurance Institute allocated resources to making academic institutions accessible (Ramot & Feldman, 2003), as well as granting individual students with disabilities scholarships and support services (Inbar, 2003). The present study was initiated to evaluate the effect of these social and legal developments on the inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education. The innovation of the research is the examination of inclusion in higher education in terms of participation in a wide range of student activities, in addition to traditional academic outcome measures.

The study examined measures related to the experiences and achievements of 170 students with sensory, physical or psychiatric disabilities, who studied at six universities and 14 colleges all over Israel. A group of 156 students without disabilities, with similar academic background, served as a control. Comparisons of the two groups were conducted in order to identify facilitators of and barriers to participation and inclusion of students with disabilities.

Students' academic background:

Analysis of the demographic background reflected many similarities between students with and without disabilities, but also a few differences. These indicated that many students with disabilities needed more time and supports to accomplish their academic tasks. The need for more time was evident in routine matters such as submitting papers on time and investing more time in tasks outside the classroom. This finding is congruent with other research which found that pacing hampered the performance of people with disabilities (Schreuer, Rimmerman & Sachs, 2006). Another difference was that students with disabilities moved from one institution to another more than students without disabilities. A high dropout rate of students with disabilities at the end of the first year is documented (Mpofu & Wilson, 2004).

Rather then focusing on the person, as in the traditional rehabilitation approach, a critical social approach to disability may explain the challenges students with disabilities face in adjusting to academic requirements due to a lack of accommodations. From the social perspective, we can assume that moving from one institution to another was due to lack of supportive services and academic accessibility (Mpofu & Wilson, 2004). In addition, the challenge regarding pacing is embedded in Western culture, which values time and imposes high speed on all people as a measure of productivity and excellence (Frankenberg, 1995; Lerner et al., 2003). Students with disabilities invested more time in tasks outside the classroom, which apparently left less time for social participation and self-maintenance. Academic accessibility does not take temporal barriers into account beyond minor accommodations such as extra time for exams. Overwhelming temporal demands leave students with disabilities to cope with unequal opportunities to fulfil their academic capabilities and participate in rich academic and social experiences inherent in the student's role.

Formal academic achievements of students with and without disabilities:

The encouraging finding is that achievements of students with disabilities proved only slightly below those of students without disabilities. Their GPA was one level lower (b+ vs. b-) and they completed fewer courses per semester. These findings are similar to those of other studies (Foreman et al., 2001; McKenzie & Schweitzer, 2001). That the achievements of students with disabilities were not remote from those of other students is noteworthy, considering the barriers they face, such as partial accessibility, time constraints, inconsistent services, and perhaps financial restraints. Yet despite the difference between the two groups in GPA not being large, in competitive institutions of higher education it can have a major impact on attainment of scholarships, admission to graduate education, and transition to the competitive job market.

Participation in student experiences, estimate of gains, and satisfaction of students with various disabilities and without disabilities:

Despite differences in achievements, students with and without disabilities did not differ in their overall experiences of academic participation, which indicates that the two groups were involved in academic activities at an equal rate. Note that students with disabilities were much more satisfied with their participation and achievements than students without disabilities. Perhaps their satisfaction stems from comparison with other friends with disabilities who were left behind, or from their feelings of success in spite of the challenges they face. However, an in-depth examination revealed differences in specific experiences. Students with disabilities used computers and information technology less, and participated less actively in their courses and in social-cultural events such as arts, music, and theatre-going.

Differences in participation patterns were exemplified by numerous differences found among three groups of students with various disabilities. The differences apparently represent the distinct ways each disability affected students' experiences, and each institution's accessibility and supports. For example, students with psychiatric disability participated less in interpersonal and social activities beyond the student's role in the classroom. The programs and supports available today focus mostly on academic and physical accessibility, and apparently do not satisfy the need to reduce the social gap, stigma, and isolation experienced by many students with disabilities, especially invisible disabilities. In addition, most research and discussions on the inclusion of students with disabilities focus on their academic achievements, and neglect the implications of their social participation. This finding calls academic institutions, student organizations, and policy makers to promote social participation programs, as part of the services provided in higher education institutions, relating to the wide range of experiences encompassed in the student's role definition.

Accessibility of computers and information technology:

An important finding of the present study is the significant difference between students with disabilities who use computers often and who don't use computers. In all the student experiences, and in their evaluation of gains and satisfaction, computer users were higher than non-users. Although a high percentage of students reported having a computer at home, the degree of control and use of computers was the differentiating factor in the frequency of academic experiences.

In the last two decades, computer literacy has become recognized by policy makers, education experts, and researchers as a central factor in students' academic performance and successful admission (Zeszotarski, 2001; Bretz & Johnson, 2000). Therefore, the lesser use of computers and information technology by students with disabilities is alarming, and calls for computer-literacy training as a basic entry level education. Making computer workstations accessible to students with disabilities is of great importance, as assistive technology can help reduce — and in some cases even eliminate — the barriers they face in the promotion of equal opportunities in higher education and in employment (Dorwick et al., 2005; Schreuer et al., 2006).

Conclusions

The present study comes at a critical time of social and legislative changes, a few years after the introduction of the Accessibility Rights for People with Disabilities Act in Israel, while the regulations, such as accessibility to higher education, are still becoming defined. The research compared students with and without disabilities for academic achievement and experiences. Most differences were related to time constraints, insufficient use of computers and technology, and barriers to social participation of students with disabilities.

The present research deepens knowledge and perception about participation and inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education. It indicates students' experiences and their satisfaction with them, rather than merely traditional academic achievements, as important outcomes of inclusion,. It also raises considerable dilemmas regarding inclusion of these students because of the great effort they must expend to meet the demands of their studies successfully — in quantity, technology, and pace. Although the academic achievements and experiences of students with and without disability are notably similar, the gap in social inclusion and involvement in extra-curricular activities is still wide. Apparently, accessibility rather than ability is the explanation for academic differences between students with and without disabilities. The former face difficulties in meeting the higher education requirements embedded in Western culture, which values time and imposes high speed on all people as a measure of productivity and excellence (Frankenberg, 1995; Lerner et al., 2003).

These findings may help higher education institutions, policy makers, and professionals to identify the accommodations and services needed to enhance inclusion of students with disabilities. First and foremost, the flexible admission procedures for students with disabilities proved itself as a justified opportunity for them to enter higher education. At the same time, adjustments and accommodations should take into consideration more creative solutions to the temporal barriers that many students face, far beyond the granting of extra examination time. Higher education institutions should also invest many more resources in accessible computers and training of students and faculty in the various uses of information technology. Most important, social change in attitudes of students and faculty toward people with disabilities is a prerequisite to social inclusion and equal opportunities for students with disabilities. As regards students' experience in its broad perspective, responsibility for social change devolves upon higher education institutions.

Future research may scrutinize the development of students throughout their undergraduate years and follow up on their inclusion in graduate and post-graduate studies, and thereafter in work and in society. Collecting information on students' use of services and listening to their experiences will likewise add depth to the data gathered in the present research.

The current study has contributed to the theoretical concept of participation and inclusion of students with disabilities. It has also drawn conclusions regarding barriers students face, as well as facilitator services and accommodations they need. The timing of the present study in Israel is significant in investigating inclusion of students with disabilities. It may influence the enforcement of the new regulations on making higher education institutions accessible. It will also facilitate future comparison between the database collected at this stage and those that will be collected in a few years' time, with the implementation of the regulations.

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